The Monistic Idealism of A. Goswami: A Theosophical Appraisal

David Pratt


Materialism and idealism

In his book The Self-Aware Universe: How consciousness creates the material world [1], physicist Amit Goswami sets out to develop a new paradigm, 'a unifying worldview that will integrate mind and spirit into science' (p. 1). He argues against material (or scientific) realism, the philosophy which holds that material reality is the only reality, that all things are made of matter (and its correlates, energy and fields), and that consciousness is an epiphenomenon of matter. Instead, he advocates 'monistic idealism', the philosophy that defines consciousness as the primary reality, the ground of all being, and regards the objects of empirical reality as epiphenomena of consciousness. Although Goswami believes that everything is a modified form of consciousness, he maintains that physical matter is dead and unconscious.

The theosophical tradition – a synthesis of science, religion, and philosophy – proposes that universal nature is essentially a unity, and that consciousness, life, and substance are therefore fundamentally one. It teaches an 'objective idealism': all finite, manifested beings and things are temporary manifestations of the ultimate reality of consciousness-life-substance. The physical world is relatively 'real' for those living in it, but is an illusion (mâyâ) when contrasted with the unlimited and ineffable reality of which it is part. There is no such thing as dead, unconscious matter; physical matter is a crystallized, sleeping form of consciousness-life-substance, and more complex physical forms do not create life but merely allow a greater degree of inner vitality to be expressed through the physical form.

Materialist science has found it extremely difficult to define where the boundary between living and 'nonliving' matter lies. If we regard anything that is subject to change and exchanges matter and energy with its surroundings as alive, then all natural systems are alive for none are absolutely unchanging. Even 'elementary' and supposedly 'structureless' subatomic particles may be just as complex in their own terms as a planet or sun, their complexity being obscured by the fact that they are so minuscule and live at such fantastic speeds in comparison with ourselves.

Worlds without end

All the main contemporary cosmological models – big bang, quasi-steady state, and plasma cosmology – are inadequate, for they are all materialistic and leave out of account the subtler influences acting from inner realms, which in occult philosophy are said to play a crucial role in forming and organizing the physical world. Goswami appears to favour the big bang hypothesis (pp. 140, 142), but does not say whether he thinks the universe is finite or infinite, or what he thinks of the wild claim that space itself popped into being at the moment of the big bang.

Theosophy recognizes no absolute limits to space or time: space is boundless, beginningless, and deathless. The infinitude of space comprises an infinite number of finite world-systems, which continually come into being, evolve, die, rest, and reembody. These systems range from the infinitely small to the infinitely large, including subatomic particles, planets, stars, galaxies, and metagalaxies. This standpoint is clearly incompatible with the idea of space itself popping into existence out of nothing, expanding and contracting, or of space curving round upon itself (in three dimensions) to form a finite, closed universe with no boundaries or edges. And it implies that matter is both infinitely divisible and infinitely aggregative: there can be no fundamental subatomic particles in the sense of absolutely structureless, indivisible points of energy.

A central teaching of theosophic philosophy is that nature is infinite not just 'horizontally' – i.e. on our physical level – but also 'vertically': the infinite continuum of consciousness-life-substance manifests in infinitely varying degrees of substantiality and spirituality, and each 'octave' in this spectrum of vibration constitutes a plane of matter-consciousness. Our physical plane is therefore no more than a cross-section through infinitude, and is interpenetrated by countless other worlds, both denser and subtler than our own, but beyond our range of perception. These worlds are not abstractions, but actual worlds, as 'material' for their respective inhabitants as our own world is for us. Thus, the earth and all the living entities forming part of it and evolving upon it do not just exchange matter and energy with their physical surroundings; there is also an internal circulation of energy-substances between the different levels of their constitution.

Manifest and transcendent realms

The existence of inner worlds of energy-substance, interpenetrating and interacting with the physical world, is rejected by Goswami, who believes that our physical universe is the only form of matter to which consciousness gives rise. He says that if energy was exchanged between the physical world and other worlds (e.g. a mental world, or the ether), this would violate the law of the conservation of energy, which science has 'established beyond doubt' (pp. 10, 51, 151).

Orthodox quantum physics allows energy to be borrowed from the 'quantum vacuum' provided it is paid back after a fraction of a second. However, over the past hundred years or so, a number of physicists, engineers, and inventors, have built 'free-energy' devices that produce more energy than required to run them, by tapping on a larger scale the 'zero-point energy' of the vacuum – i.e. nonphysical, etheric energy [2]. In addition, the theory that the sun is powered exclusively by thermonuclear reactions faces serious problems, and some scientists have suggested that much of its energy might come from subtler sources [3]. Further evidence for interchanges of energy with deeper levels of reality is provided by paranormal phenomena. Theosophically, the law of the conservation of matter-energy applies to infinite nature as a whole but not necessarily to any particular plane within it.

In Goswami's model of monistic idealism there are only two worlds: the world of manifestation – the ordinary, immanent world of spacetime, matter, and motion; and the transcendent realm beyond physical spacetime, containing the 'probability waves' of quantum physics. Goswami does not say whether he believes the transcendent realm has always existed or whether it originated at a particular moment in the past. Nor is it clear whether the physical universe itself is supposed to have been born in a 'big bang', since according to Goswami there was no physical universe until selfconscious beings evolved in the transcendent realm and 'collapsed' the universe's wave function (p. 141).

Moreover, the 'probability waves' that the transcendent realm contains appear to be nothing but mathematical abstractions, but if this realm has no substantial nature whatsoever, it is pure nothingness and cannot influence, or give rise to, the physical world. In so far as the transcendent domain is closely linked with quantum physics, it corresponds to the lower etheric and astral realms, though the latter interact with the physical world energetically, while Goswami rules out any such exchange between the physical world and his transcendent realm, saying that they interact only by means of 'choice and recognition' (p. 172).

Ether and nonlocality

The existence of an ether – an all-pervading medium composed of a subtler kind of matter – has been taught by mystic philosophers throughout the ages. In the 19th century, scientists generally accepted the existence of an ether, through which lightwaves propagated, forces were transmitted, and out of which matter was made. However, in the early part of the 20th century, the ether was officially abolished by science, and replaced with the fiction of 'empty space'. Goswami dismisses the ether as 'obsolete' (p. 139).

The ether, however, is far from dead. A series of ether-drift experiments have been carried out in the course of this century that are consistent with its existence, and a number of scientists continue to work on ether theories [4]. Materialists regard matter as patterns of energy organized by fields. But whereas electric, magnetic, and gravitational fields used to be understood as currents of ether, the modern theory offers only a mathematical description, and has no satisfactory explanation of what they are or how they can act at a distance. Modern quantum physics predicts that the vacuum of space is teeming with normally undetectable 'zero-point' energy, in the form of electromagnetic radiation fields (the zero-point field) and short-lived 'virtual' particles (the 'Dirac sea'). This 'quantum vacuum' is similar in some respects to the ether. The concept of a 'quantum ether' is also associated with the causal interpretation of quantum physics developed by David Bohm, Basil Hiley, Jean-Pierre Vigier, John Bell, and others (see below) [5].

'EPR' experiments – largely made possible by the theoretical groundwork of David Bohm and John Bell – have reportedly demonstrated that two quantum systems (e.g. polarized photons) that have previously interacted show 'nonlocal' correlations, i.e. correlations that cannot be explained in terms of signals travelling through physical spacetime at or slower than the speed of light. Goswami states: 'One way to resolve the EPR paradox is by postulating that there is an ether behind the space-time scene where faster-than-light (superluminal) signals are allowed. This resolution would also mean giving up locality and materialism and so is unacceptable to most physicists.' (p. 120) Goswami rejects this explanation on the grounds that 'superluminal signals would make possible time travel to the past'. Needless to say, there is no empirical evidence whatsoever for the theoretical dogma that anything that travels faster than light would travel backwards in time.

Goswami's alternative explanation of EPR is derived from his interpretation of quantum physics (see below). He writes:

it is your observation that collapses the wave function of one of the two correlated photons in the experiment, forcing it to take on a certain polarization. The wave function of the correlated partner photon also collapses immediately. A consciousness that can collapse the wave function of a photon at a distance instantly must itself be nonlocal, or transcendent. Thus instead of nonlocality being a property mediated by superluminal signals, the idealist posits nonlocality to be an essential aspect of the collapse of the wave function of the correlated system – and so a trait of consciousness. (pp. 120-1)
Goswami is saying that our consciousness brings about an event at one place, and that simultaneously a correlated event occurs elsewhere without any causal influences travelling between them; the two correlated events are 'synchronicities', or meaningful, acausal coincidences (p. 128). But saying that an event at one place 'just happens' to be correlated with an event elsewhere in a meaningful way hardly constitutes an explanation. For Goswami, then, 'nonlocality' means 'signal-less, instantaneous action at a distance' (p. 61), whereas theosophically it would involve superluminal signalling through the ether. 'Superluminal' does not mean absolutely instantaneous (i.e. infinitely fast), as no quantities can become infinite (a mathematical abstraction) in the real world.

Wave-function collapse

Goswami's theory of monistic idealism is based on a particular interpretation of quantum physics, especially of the 'measurement problem', an interpretation which he says is 'logical, coherent, and satisfying' (p. 11). In quantum physics the state of a quantum system is described by the Schrödinger wave function, which gives the probability of finding the system concerned in any particular region of space. If this wave function is taken to be a literal description of the state of a quantum system, it would mean that although, when a measurement is made, a particle is found at only one place, in between measurements its 'wave packet' spreads out, so that it dissolves into a 'superposition of probability waves' and is present at several places simultaneously.

In the famous 'Schrödinger's cat' paradox, a cat is placed in a box with a device containing a radioactive atom, which has a certain probability of decaying with a certain period of time. If it decays it triggers a hammer which breaks a bottle of poison, killing the cat. If we suppose that there is a 50% chance of this happening within an hour, then during this period the cat is supposedly neither alive nor dead but in some sense both. But when we open the box, our observation is supposed to instantly 'collapse' the cat's wave function, turning a multifaceted potentiality into a single actuality, so that we find the cat either alive or dead.

It is worth remembering that Schrödinger put forward his paradox to illustrate the absurdities to which the standard interpretation of quantum physics leads. But these absurdities are taken as literal truths in the standard, Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, developed by Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and others in the 1920s and 30s. According to Goswami, the paradox of a cat being both dead and alive is not particularly disturbing to an idealist philosopher! He advises us to suspend our disbelief and remember Robert Oppenheimer's remark that 'science is uncommon sense' (p. 87). This points to the significant changes that have taken place in certain fields of science since the 19th century, when Thomas Huxley defined science as 'organized common sense'.

According to the uncertainty principle, it is impossible to measure complementary quantities such as the position and momentum of a quantum object simultaneously with complete accuracy. This is because an act of measurement involves the exchange of at least one photon of energy, which disturbs the object being measured. However, the Copenhagen interpretation goes further and says that it is meaningless, in the absence of observation, to say that a subatomic particle possesses a definite position, momentum, or any other property, or that it follows a definite path.

As Heisenberg put it: 'The path of the electron comes into existence only when we observe it' (p. 39). He also said that atomic reality could be found only in the mathematics; while measurements and laboratory observations are real, 'the atoms or the elementary particles are not as real; they form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts'. Pascual Jordan stated that in a measurement, 'the electron is forced to a decision. We compel it to assume a definite position; previously it was, in general, neither here nor there, it had not yet made its decision for a definite position. . . . We ourselves produce the results of measurement.' Bohr, too, was uncompromising: 'There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract quantum mechanical description.'[6]

According to this view, which Goswami finds 'revolutionary' (p. 140), the quantum world does not have an independent reality apart from our acts of observation and measurement, and different experiments force it to give different, complementary, and paradoxical answers. Bohr once said: 'Those who are not shocked when they first come across quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it.' What he should have said was: 'Those who are not shocked when they first come across the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum theory cannot possibly have understood it'! Einstein, Planck, Schrödinger, and other scientific thinkers refused to accept that the Copenhagen interpretation was the last word on quantum reality.

Goswami takes the Copenhagen interpretation a step further, in the same direction as E.P. Wigner, by proposing that it is human consciousness which collapses the wave function. Thus, in the Schrödinger's cat experiment, 'the consciousness of the observing subject choose[s] one facet from the multifaceted dead-and-alive coherent superposition of the cat and thus seal[s] its fate' (p. 107). Goswami stresses that he is not arguing here for psychokinesis: the 'choice' is not made by our personal ego but by a single, universal subject – transcendent, unitive consciousness. He states that a measurement is complete only when 'a self-referential observation' has taken place, i.e. 'when the transcendent consciousness collapses the wave function by means of an immanent brain-mind looking on with awareness' (pp. 97, 99).

Before the 'coherent superpositions' of a quantum system are collapsed by human consciousness, they are said to be real but to exist in the transcendent domain beyond material reality; they are brought into immanence only when a conscious mind, by the process of observation, chooses one of the many facets of the coherent superposition. In what sense these superpositions or probabilities can be said to exist is not clear; in fact Goswami also calls them 'abstractions' (p. 81), implying that they exist only on paper – and the idea of 'collapsing' abstractions into real particles is rather absurd.

The hypothesis of wave-function collapse by conscious observers raises a number of questions. First of all, does 'observation' refer solely to the sense of sight or do our other senses – taste, touch, smell, and hearing – also possess the power to collapse wave functions? If not, how can the superiority of sight be explained? Can clairvoyant vision, or distant viewing, also collapse wave functions? When we collapse our own bodies' wave functions, must we actually look at ourselves (assuming that it is not too dark, or that we are not blind), or is it sufficient to be aware that we are alive? Is it in fact possible to collapse the wave function of an object just by thinking of it?

When we look at an object we normally only see part of its surface, but apparently this is sufficient to collapse the wave function of the whole object. If an astronaut observes our earth from space, does this automatically collapse the wave functions of everything living on it? And where exactly does the boundary between the earth and its surroundings lie? The rocky earth is surrounded by an atmosphere, which merges into the interstellar medium. In fact, if everything is constantly exchanging matter and energy with its environment, and is directly correlated with everything else, would not an observation by a single selfconscious observer collapse the wave function(s) of everything in the universe?

If everything is a modified form of consciousness, it would seem logical to suppose that everything is conscious to some degree (though Goswami rejects this), and it may seem that all entities, including atoms and subatomic particles, would be able to collapse their own wave functions (assuming for a moment that this notion is more than just a mathematical fiction), and that they would therefore be able to maintain themselves in a state of objective reality without the intervention of human consciousness. It seems very strange that even a cat needs humans to tell it whether it is dead or alive! Goswami, however, insists that the awareness of a human brain-mind is an essential ingredient in the collapse of wave functions by transcendent consciousness. Yet it would seem that a physical brain-mind is not absolutely necessary, since before the emergence of a physical brain-mind, Goswami believes that selfconscious beings evolved as potentia in the transcendent realm and that as soon as this happened these potentia somehow managed to collapse themselves and the rest of their branch of reality into the material world (p. 141).


Goswami gives further examples of the weird world of monistic idealism:
Whenever we look at the moon, for example, we find the moon where we expect it along its classically calculated trajectory. Naturally we project that the moon is always there in space-time, even when we are not looking. Quantum physics says no. When we are not looking, the moon's possibility wave spreads, albeit by a minuscule amount. When we look, the wave collapses instantly; thus the wave could not be in space-time. It makes more sense to adopt an idealist metaphysic assumption: There is no object in space-time without a conscious subject looking at it. (pp. 59-60)
Did the universe exist before the evolution of conscious observers with the power of collapsing wave functions? Goswami replies that until then the cosmos never appeared in concrete form and never stays fixed in form even now: 'the universe exists as formless potentia in myriad possible branches in the transcendent domain and becomes manifest only when observed by conscious beings' (p. 141). He says that there is only a very low probability of life evolving from prebiotic matter through beneficial mutations leading to us humans, and offers the following solution:
Once we recognize that biological mutation (which includes the mutation of prebiotic molecules) is a quantum event, we realize that the universe bifurcates in every such event in the transcendent domain, becoming many branches, until in one of the branches there is a sentient being that can look with awareness and complete a quantum measurement. At this point the causal pathway leading to that sentient being collapses into space-time reality. John Wheeler calls this kind of scenario the closure of the meaning circuit by 'observer-participancy.' Meaning arises in the universe when sentient beings observe it, choosing causal pathways from among the myriad transcendent possibilities. If this sounds as if we are re-establishing an anthropocentric view of the universe, so be it. The time and context for a strong anthropic principle has come – the idea that 'observers are necessary to bring the universe into being.' . . . We are the center of the universe because we are its meaning. (p. 141)

All this is a far cry from the theosophic worldview, in which the evolution of intelligent, selfconscious beings, while a necessary stage of evolution, is not required to give the material world objective reality or meaning. The physical world is quite capable of existing and evolving in the absence of human observers. It seems more reasonable to suppose that as everything is part of the ultimate reality of consciousness-life-substance, everything gives actuality and meaning to everything else; everything is connected with everything else and participates in the existence of everything else. If 'consciousness' gives rise to 'matter', it does so not through perception and measurement but through emanation, differentiation, and densification.

The hypothesis of wave-function collapse is based on a particular interpretation of quantum mathematics, and Goswami does not suggest any ways in which it could be verified or falsified experimentally. David Bohm states that wave-function collapse is one of the most serious problems in the conventional (Copenhagen) approach to quantum physics:

According to the Schrödinger equation, this wave function can change only in a smooth and continuous way. However, the results of any quantum mechanical measurement make sense only if it is assumed that the wave function 'collapses' in a sudden and discontinuous fashion. Since this collapse is not covered by the Schrödinger equation, and indeed appears to violate it, an additional assumption or some other interpretation is required to explain this 'collapse of the wave function.' [7]

In Bohm's approach, the notion of wave-function collapse is dispensed with altogether.

As Goswami points out: 'We cannot connect quantum physics with experimental data without using some schema of interpretation, and interpretation depends on the philosophy we bring to bear on the data' (p. 9). But neither the experimental results of quantum physics nor idealist philosophy as such compel us to believe that the existence of the material world depends on measuring apparatus or human observation; this is an interpretation which we may accept or reject according to our intuition and metaphysical taste. The outcome of an experiment does of course depend on the experimental setup, and since we are free to choose this ourselves, in that sense we affect the result. But our conscious observation does not significantly affect the outcome of an experiment, except, of course, in the case of genuine psychokinesis. Some people may find it exciting that quantum physics can be used to support the theory that human selfconsciousness gives reality to the material world, while such a theory may strike others – materialists and idealists alike – as far-fetched and absurd.

Goswami says that although matter is not unreal, the reality of matter is secondary to that of consciousness. He rejects 'strong objectivity' – the view that there is an objective, independent material universe outside of us, even when we are not observing it – and argues for 'weak objectivity' – the view that objects are not independent of the observer but that they are nevertheless the same irrespective of who the observer is, and that since our observation collapses the wave packets of quantum objects to localized particles, subjects and objects are inextricably interblended.

According to theosophy, the material world is mâyâ, an illusion, not in the sense that it is a figment of our imagination or created by our own individual minds, but in the sense that the objects it contains are finite, transitory, and apparently separate; we do not see the material world for what it really is – a temporary projection of the universal mind, of which our own selfconscious minds are fragments. The material world is therefore relatively objective, a collective, relatively real 'illusion'. It is relatively independent of us in that even if there were no human beings to observe it, it would go on existing in the same orderly way, but it is not absolutely independent of us since we are in constant interaction with it and indeed part of it.

Although Goswami insists that his brand of idealism is monistic, it seems to incorporate a distinct dualism. Unitary consciousness, the ground of all being, gives rise to two very different realms: the manifest world of physical spacetime, and the transcendent realm, which is not just beyond physical spacetime, but supposedly beyond all conceptions of space and time. Communication in the manifest world involves signals travelling at finite speeds up to and including the speed of light, while in the transcendent realm communication is instantaneous (infinitely fast). The manifest world is a world of matter-energy, while the transcendent realm apparently is not; it is a realm of 'probabilities' and 'coherent superpositions' – described as both 'real' and yet 'abstractions' – which are capable of somehow being 'collapsed' into manifest existence by the human brain-mind without any exchange of energy between the two realms.

Theosophy, on the other hand, is truly monistic: there is nothing but infinite consciousness-life-substance, of infinitely varied grades, manifesting in infinitely varied forms on every conceivable scale, and the principle of analogy – as above, so below – means that there are no fundamental dichotomies between one world and another. In short, there is unity in diversity.

The causal interpretation of quantum physics

Diametrically opposed to the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum physics, and Goswami's monistic-idealist extension of it, is the causal (or ontological) interpretation of quantum physics developed by David Bohm and his colleagues.[8]

John Bell writes: 'conventional formulations of quantum theory, and of quantum field theory in particular, are unprofessionally vague and ambiguous. Professional theoretical physicists ought to be able to do better. Bohm has shown us a way.' He says that the 1952 papers in which Bohm first presented his alternative interpretation were 'a revelation' for him, especially in the way they eliminated indeterminism and the need for a vague division of the world into 'system' on the one hand, and 'apparatus' or 'observer' on the other. He adds: 'I have always felt since that people who have not grasped the ideas of those papers (and unfortunately they remain the majority) are handicapped in any discussion of the meaning of quantum mechanics.'[9]

The causal interpretation of quantum physics rejects the assumption that the uncertainty principle means that absolute indeterminism and lawlessness prevail at the quantum level; and it also rejects the assumption that the wave function provides a complete description of individual systems and thereby avoids the necessity of introducing the ill-defined notion of 'wave-function collapse'. Instead it posits causal particle trajectories in space and time, determined not only by conventional physical forces but also by a subtler force, the quantum potential, which operates from a deeper, implicate level of reality and provides 'nonlocal' connections between quantum systems.

The causal interpretation gives the lie to Goswami's insistence that an electron can be in two places at once and that 'the message of quantum mathematics . . . is unambiguous on this point' (p. ix). A similar claim is that quantum mathematics insists that Schrödinger's cat can be half alive and half dead and 'however bizarre its consequences, we must take this mathematics seriously because the same mathematics gives us the marvels of transistors and lasers' (p. 79). It is disingenuous to suggest that quantum mathematics can be interpreted in one way only. There is no proof that an electron, for example, can be in more than one place at the same time, just as there is no proof that a cat is simultaneously alive and dead when no one is looking at it. The causal interpretation offers a simple and intelligible explanation of the two-slit experiment, for example, in which electrons at times behave like particles and at other times seem to split in two and act like waves. The alternative to assuming that an electron can be in two places at once is to assume the existence of subtler levels of reality. Common sense would seem to favour the latter, but this will not endear it to many physicists who have convinced themselves that it is quantum reality that is bizarre and illogical rather than their own inadequate theories!

Another 'paradox' to which Goswami refers is the 'quantum jump': a quantum object can supposedly disappear at one place and simultaneously appear elsewhere without passing through the intervening space. However, the quantum jump poses a paradox only if we assume that a quantum object disappears into nothingness and reemerges from nothingness. There is nothing paradoxical about quantum objects dissolving into and recrystallizing from an etheric medium. Bohm argues that the apparently stable and solid objects and entities we see around us are generated and sustained by a ceaseless process of enfoldment and unfoldment, with subatomic particles constantly being introjected into the implicate order and then reprojected. (Note that this process is not described by the Schrödinger equation, as this would imply that particles manifest physically only when we humans decide to make a measurement!) Bohm states that successive localized manifestations of, say, an electron will approximate a continuous track if they are very close together, but that they need not be. 'In principle, discontinuities may be allowed in the manifest tracks and these may provide the basis of an explanation of how . . . an electron can go from one state to another without passing through states in between.'[10]

In Bohm's view, all the separate objects and entities in the visible or explicate world around us are relatively autonomous, stable, and temporary 'subtotalities' derived from a deeper, implicate order of unbroken wholeness. The quantum potential corresponds to the implicate order. But Bohm suggests that the quantum potential is itself organized and guided by a superquantum potential, representing a second implicate order, or superimplicate order. He proposes that there may be an infinite series, and perhaps hierarchies, of implicate (or generative) orders. Higher implicate orders help to organize the lower ones, which in turn influence the higher.[11]

While rejecting the idea that human consciousness is required to 'collapse' wave functions and give objective reality to the material world, Bohm recognizes that consciousness and life are not simply by-products of matter but are enfolded in the indefinable depths of the generative order and are therefore present in varying degrees of unfoldment in all matter, including 'inanimate' matter such as electrons or plasmas. He suggests that there is a 'protointelligence' in matter, so that new evolutionary developments do not emerge in a random fashion but creatively as relatively integrated wholes from subtler levels of reality.

Bohm's interpretation of quantum physics – while certainly not the last word on the subject – shows how order can be restored to the supposedly crazy quantum world. Bohm's views – a form of transcendental realism – can easily be interpreted in a manner compatible with objective idealism if the hierarchies of implicate orders which he postulates are viewed as inner worlds composed of different grades of spirit-substance. The mystical connotations of his ideas are underlined by his remark that the implicate domain 'could equally well be called idealism, spirit, consciousness. The separation of the two – matter and spirit – is an abstraction. The ground is always one.'[12]

Causality, creativity, and free will

Bohm rejects the idea that absolute indeterminism reigns at the quantum level. Commenting on the trend in modern physics, he writes:
the conclusions concerning the need to give up the concepts of causality, continuity of motion, and the objective reality of individual micro-objects have been too hasty. For it is quite possible that while the quantum theory, and with it the indeterminacy principle, are valid to a very high degree of approximation in a certain domain, they both cease to have relevance in new domains below that in which the current theory is applicable. Thus, the conclusion that there is no deeper level of causally determined motion is just a piece of circular reasoning, since it will follow only if we assume beforehand that no such level exists. . . . What is common to both classical physicists and modern physicists is, therefore, a tendency to assume the absolute and final character of the general features of the most fundamental theory that happens to be available at the time at which they are working. [13]

To salvage causality it is necessary to postulate 'hidden variables' existing at deeper levels of reality. Goswami opposes this idea: 'According to Bohm, what happens in space-time is nevertheless determined by what happens in a nonlocal reality beyond space-time. If this were the case, then our free will and creativity would ultimately be illusions, and there would be no real meaning in the human drama.' (p. 126) This argument is valid only if we choose to assume that the existence of deeper causal influences altogether precludes free will – which Goswami conveniently does, but Bohm most certainly does not; he explicitly defends the notion of free will. Once it is recognized that deeper causal influences include our own minds, Goswami's objection falls to the ground.

The idea of absolute indeterminism and chance, of things happening for no reason whatsoever, uninfluenced by anything else in the universe, has no place in theosophy. Nothing happens by 'chance' or 'accident' because nothing happens in isolation; everything is interconnected in some way with everything else. Causality, or karma, is a fundamental fact of nature; everything is part of an intricate web of causation. Free will is a form of active, selfconscious self-determination, and has nothing to do with chance – if our thoughts and choices popped into our minds haphazardly they would hardly be manifestations of our free will.

Goswami appears to accept the existence of chance; he says that the acausal discontinuity associated with the conscious collapse of wave functions from outside spacetime provides the basis for free will and creativity (pp. 42, 129, 234). At the same time, he says that wave-function collapses are not random but 'choices' (p. 174). These acausal, unconscious, yet nonrandom choices seem rather curious, and it is not clear why they should lead to order and creativity rather than total disorder. However, Goswami also says that 'The creativity of the cosmos comes from the creativity of its quantum laws, not from arbitrary lawlessness' (p. 84). But what are these mysterious, inherently creative laws and where did they come from? Do they evolve or are they eternally the same? Are they just free-floating abstractions? If so, how can they influence the material world?

Rupert Sheldrake proposes that the laws of nature are more like nature's habits, which have grown up along with the evolving universe. Theosophy agrees, but adds that these are the habits of living entities, ranging from higher intelligences on superior planes, which collectively constitute the universal mind, to elemental nature-forces. Just as bodily processes such as digestion, the beating of the heart, respiration, and growth are normally regulated by our automatic will, so the physical world is the body of higher worlds and the regularities of nature are the instinctual effects on our plane of the wills and energies of the entities dwelling on inner planes. The 'mind of nature' reflects the habits built up by past events and developments (including during former planetary embodiments), and pushes in certain evolutionary directions. This explains why, as many scientists have remarked, the cosmos seems to exercise a bias in favour of 'constructive accidents', and why nature is 'predisposed' to evolve along certain lines. However, the relative autonomy of each plane and the existence of free will mean that there is always room for new creative developments.

Mind and brain

Goswami defines mind as 'the organization and functions of the brain at the macro level, including the as-yet-uncharted quantum macrostructure' (pp. 280-1). We are 'consciousness manifesting as dual quantum-classical systems' (p. 260), and the interaction of these two systems produces our mental states. Nonlocal consciousness is said to collapse the brain-mind's wave function, just as it collapses the wave functions of other quantum objects. Between collapses the state of the brain-mind exists as potentialities of myriad possible patterns or tendencies. The collapse actualizes one of these tendencies, but only in the presence of brain-mind awareness, and the result is a conscious experience. Each time consciousness collapses the system's wave function, a creative discontinuity occurs and a choice is made. But although we choose our conscious experiences, we remain unconscious of the underlying process, and this leads to an illusory sense of separateness, 'the identity with the separate "I" of self-reference (rather than the "we" of unitive consciousness)' (pp. 173-5, 201).

According to Goswami, each previously experienced, learned response reinforces the probability of the same response again, leading to the emergence of a distinct ego, which is our 'classical self', but beyond this is our 'quantum self'. The classical component of the brain-mind is said to make records of collapsed events, and to create a sense of continuity, while the quantum component is said to account for the mind's nonlocal characteristics, such as creativity, free choice, ESP, and transpersonal experiences (pp. 162, 168). Buddhi is defined as 'the extended self-identity beyond ego', while âtman is 'the self of the pure-awareness experience', and both are connected with our 'quantum self' (pp. 204-5, 265).

According to Goswami's theory, then, mind is inseparably bound up with the brain, including its quantum structure. In theosophy, on the other hand, the brain is regarded as an instrument of the mind, and is in constant interaction with it; the mind is associated with the inner levels of our constitution and can exist apart from the physical body. A human being is said to consist of several interacting sheaths of consciousness: physical body, astral model-body, desire body or animal soul, lower human soul, higher human soul, spiritual soul (buddhi), and divine soul (âtman), the latter being an integral part of Brahman, the cosmic divinity. The model body, animal soul, and lower human soul are composed of astral substances and, together with the physical body, make up the lower quaternary or human personality, while the three higher principles, or upper triad, are composed of âkâshic substances and form the human individuality.

There are similarities between the theosophic scheme and Sheldrake's theory of morphic fields (if the latter are interpreted as more refined states of spirit-substance). Morphogenetic fields correspond to the model body, behavioural morphic fields to the animal soul, and mental fields to the human soul. Sheldrake suggests that our conscious self may be regarded either as a subjective aspect of the morphic fields that organize the brain, or as a higher level of our being which interacts with the lower fields and serves as the creative ground through which new fields arise. According to Sheldrake, we are also influenced by social and cultural morphic fields, and are contained within the overall field of Gaia. In theosophy, too, we are said to be immersed in the thought-atmosphere of the earth's astral light and âkâsha; we attract into our stream of consciousness those thoughts and ideas (etheric energy-forms) with which we resonate most strongly, modify them, and throw them out again. The lower regions of the astral light are sometimes called nature's picture gallery for they bear a record of everything that happens on the physical plane.

Goswami asserts that the classical component of the physical brain forms and records memories but he does not attempt to explain how; memory has proved an intractable problem for neuroscientists. He also asserts that quantum objects have no memory at all (p. 102). In theosophy, on the other hand, as in Sheldrake's theory, memories are not stored in the physical brain, and every entity is surrounded and pervaded by subtler 'memory fields'.

Goswami opposes the dualistic idea of a nonmaterial mind interacting with a material body: 'If there are such mind-body interactions, then there have to be exchanges of energy between the two domains. In myriad experiments, we find that the energy of the material universe by itself remains a constant (this is the law of conservation of energy). Neither has any evidence shown that energy is lost to or gained from the mental domain.' (p. 51) He contrasts this view with his own hypothesis: 'Before the supervention of consciousness, the brain-mind exists as formless potentia (like any other object) in the transcendent domain of consciousness. When nonlocal consciousness collapses the brain-mind's wave function, it does so by choice and recognition, not by any energetic process.' (p. 172) It would be interesting to know how 'choice and recognition' manage to 'collapse' abstract potentia into concrete forms!

In theosophy, the mind is 'nonmaterial' only in the sense that it is not composed of physical matter. The theosophic standpoint is 'dualistic' in so far as the body and mind are made of different substances, but is monistic in that these substances are merely different grades of one unitary essence. It seems safe to assume that mind and brain do in fact interact energetically, whatever arguments may be invented to the contrary.

The paranormal

According to Goswami, telepathy and other forms of ESP do not involve the transfer of energy and information, but rather communication via nonlocal consciousness; they are 'events of synchronicity caused by quantum nonlocal collapse' (p. 132). The fact that no local (physical) signals are involved is proved, he says, by the fact that researchers in Russia have looked for such signals for years without finding any. This result is of course also consistent with the theosophic view that ESP involves the transmission of nonphysical energies and signals on the astral plane. The strength of physical forces and signals tends to fall off rapidly with distance; gravity and electromagnetism, for example, obey the inverse-square law. It appears that the factors involved in telepathy do not obey the inverse-square law, but this does not necessarily mean that they are not weakened by distance at all.

Goswami claims that it is impossible for one person to send an actual message telepathically to another person as this would violate the causality principle. He says that in telepathy experiments, as in EPR experiments, the meaning of the communication only ever becomes apparent after the event, when the two sets of results are compared. What he means is that if person A consciously sends a telepathic message through the ether, faster than light, to person B, and B is immediately aware of receiving it, B would actually receive the message before A even sent it! Common sense, on the other hand, suggests that B would receive the message after A had sent it, but simply more quickly than if it had been sent at the speed of light or a slower speed. (Since writing his book, Goswami has modified his position and now admits that the telepathic transfer of actual messages 'may be possible' [14].)

Goswami rejects the explanation of out-of-the-body and near-death experiences in terms of the transmigration of the mind, and dismisses the idea of disembodied minds or astral bodies as 'simplistic' (p. 134). Instead he suggests that such experiences are an illusion produced by distant viewing and involve the nonlocal operation of consciousness. In other words, the brain-mind has direct access to what is happening elsewhere without the transmission of any signals. But while absolutely instantaneous, signal-less, 'nonlocal' communication may sound rather grand, it is a pure abstraction and therefore does not tell us anything about what may be happening in reality.

According to theosophy, astral bodies do exist. The astral model-body can be separated a short distance from the physical body (severance of the cord of vitality linking the two means death). In addition, an 'illusory' astral form (or mâyâvi-rûpa) may be created and projected to other parts of the earth, either consciously (as in the case of an adept), or unconsciously, and under certain circumstances it may become physically visible to others.

Goswami does not say anything about mediumship and channelling, multiple personality, and possession. Some researchers prefer to explain all such phenomena in terms of the 'unconscious', both personal and collective. From a theosophic standpoint, the 'unconscious' is certainly an important factor, and is associated with impressions preserved in the astral light. Another possible factor is influence by astral entities, of widely varying degrees of intelligence, especially elementals and the disintegrating shells (kâma-rûpas) of deceased humans.

Although Goswami believes that human consciousness is required to collapse the wave functions of quantum systems and give the material world objective existence, he appears to reject psychokinesis – the action of mind on matter at a distance – saying that the evidence for it is 'scanty and dubious' (p. 84). Perhaps he would also reject poltergeist phenomena – a sort of nonselfconscious form of psychokinesis. A theory which cannot explain the difference between ordinary perception, selfconscious psychokinesis, and nonselfconscious psychokinesis, and perhaps even has no place for psychokinesis, is clearly unsatisfactory. (Goswami has since altered his position and now admits that psychokinesis 'seems to have been demonstrated' [15]. However he neglects to show how it can be explained in terms of the nebulous concepts of 'coherent superpositions' and 'quantum nonlocal collapse'.)

Although theosophy rejects the conceit that the material world cannot exist objectively without human observers, there are two types of phenomena where the human mind does act on matter: firstly, in the contact between our own minds and bodies; and secondly, in the influence our minds can exert on other minds and physical objects at a distance (nonphysically), as in telepathy and psychokinesis. Mind over matter may be either intentional and selfconscious, or instinctive and nonselfconscious, i.e. it may involve our passive will or our active (or free) will. The agencies involved in psychokinetic phenomena include the astral body, elemental energies, and in the case of poltergeist phenomena, possibly other astral entities as well.

Goswami does not refer to the materializing, dematerializing, and teleporting of physical objects, and it is not clear whether they are explicable in terms of his theory. From a theosophic standpoint, a trained adept can, by an effort of the will, disperse the atoms of an object (except for the human body), send them along a current in the ether, and reform the object elsewhere, or can cause an object to appear by forcing physical atoms to aggregate around an astral form and/or by materializing astral matter so that it becomes physically visible (which would presumably violate the conservation of energy as normally understood).

Since Goswami does not recognize the existence of other planes of energy-substance, the famous materialization, via the medium Florence Cook, of a complete human form, calling itself Katie King – a phenomenon investigated, and found to be genuine, by the prominent 19th-century scientist (and theosophist) Sir William Crookes – was presumably not what it seemed. Unless all such materializations are to be attributed to fraud and deception, they would probably have to be explained by Goswami as some sort of collective illusion involving 'quantum nonlocal collapse'.

A.R. Wallace, the co-developer with Darwin of the theory of natural selection, believed that spiritualist phenomena were worthy of serious investigation and was convinced of the reality of 'spirit' manifestations. He stated: 'I assert that, whenever the scientific men of any age have denied the facts of investigators on a priori grounds, they have always been wrong.'[16]


Although reincarnation is an essential tenet of western as well as eastern mysticism, in his book Goswami curtly dismisses it: 'The ego loves itself, so much so that it wants to be immortal. This seeking of immortality expresses itself in the West in the striving for fame and power. In the East it has led to the idea of reincarnation of the individual soul' (p. 252). He says that there is no individual survival after death, though consciousness, our essence, never dies (p. 83). Since writing his book, Goswami has reversed his opposition to reincarnation and now believes in repeated incarnations by a 'quantum monad'. However, he still rejects the idea that we have subtler, inner souls composed of finer grades of spirit-substance, and if the 'quantum monad' is nothing but an abstraction, it would have great difficulty incarnating in or through a physical body!

Reincarnation is a fundamental teaching of theosophy. It is not the human personality that reincarnates, but the individuality – the higher human soul, informed by the âtmic-buddhic monad. Human souls cannot normally incarnate in animal bodies, though the atoms composing our four lower vehicles are said to transmigrate through the lower kingdoms of nature during the interval between lives.

A living organism functions as an integrated whole for as long as it is animated and held together by inner energy fields or souls, composed of finer, nonphysical grades of energy-substance. An organism is born with a certain store of vital energy, and after this energy has been expended, the physical body dies and the inner entity withdraws for a period of rest. Once the individual molecules are freed from the restraint imposed by this coordinating force, they become more active or full of life and go their separate ways, causing the physical body to decay. After death, the components of the human astral personality also decay, at different rates, on their respective planes.

The reincarnating ego, on the other hand, is said to enter a dreamlike state of rest until the time comes for it to return to earth. As it reawakens and 'redescends' towards the material realm, it draws back to itself the same life-atoms that had formerly composed its lower vehicles and which therefore bear the karmic impress of previous lives. Life after life we build habits of thought, feeling, and behaviour into the different levels of our constitution. In short, we make ourselves what we are. Reincarnation is therefore closely related to the doctrine of karma, the doctrine that each new life is the product of previous lives, that as we sow, we reap.

Theosophy teaches that all entities – atoms, animals, humans, planets, stars, and universes – reembody, i.e. pass through cyclic periods of activity and rest, manifestation and dissolution. All entities are informed by spiritual monads, sparks of universal consciousness, which use the different forms offered by the various kingdoms of nature for the purpose of gaining evolutionary experience. Our monads begin each grand cycle of evolution, comprising several planetary embodiments, as unselfconscious god-sparks in the elemental kingdoms, then pass through the mineral, plant, animal, and human kingdoms, before entering the spiritual kingdoms and completing the cycle as selfconscious gods. After a period of nirvanic rest, the process is repeated on other planes, in other worlds, as part of a never-ending evolutionary adventure through the fields of infinitude.


For Goswami, God or Brahman is consciousness, the ground of all being. Theosophy is pantheistic (or panentheistic): divinity (or Parabrahman) is infinite nature, universal consciousness-life-substance, encompassing all the endless hierarchies of worlds and planes and their inhabitants which infill and in fact compose the boundless All. Divinity is therefore immanent and omnipresent and the root of all things, but since it is greater than any of its individual expressions, it is also transcendent.

Infinitude comprises an infinite number of world-systems, and within any particular hierarchy of worlds, all the entities that have passed beyond the human stage may be termed spiritual beings, or 'gods', meaning beings who are relatively perfected with respect to the hierarchy in question. The most advanced beings in any system of worlds may collectively be regarded as divinity (or Brahman) for that hierarchy. But this is not God in the traditional sense, for there is no god so high that there is none higher.


Goswami's monistic idealism, like theosophy, teaches that we are all part of one all-encompassing consciousness and that separateness is an illusion, and advocates the same noble and inspiring ethics as all the great religious and mystical traditions – the ethics of responsibility, compassion, forgiveness, altruism, service, and universal brotherhood. Goswami says that the path of spiritual self-transformation leads us from the ego level of fragmentation, through buddhi to âtman, the level of cosmic consciousness, where we regain the 'enchanted state of wholeness'. He quotes the words of the poet, Rabindranath Tagore (p. 268):
I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was service.
I acted and behold, service was joy.


  1. Amit Goswami, with R.E. Reed & M. Goswami, The Self-Aware Universe: How consciousness creates the material world, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam Books, 1993.
  2. See Jeane Manning, The Coming Energy Revolution: The search for free energy, Avery, 1996; Serge K. King, Earth Energies, Quest, 1992.
  3. New Scientist, 9 Sept. 1995, p. 50; New Scientist, 16 Dec. 1995, p. 17; Paul LaViolette, Beyond the Big Bang: Ancient myth and the science of continuous creation, Park Street Press, 1995, pp. 296-307.
  4. See e.g.: Paul LaViolette, Beyond the Big Bang; Harold Aspden,; Elektromagnum,; Theories of the aether,; Bahram Katirai, Revolution in Physics, Noor Publishing Co., 1993; R. Schaffranke, Ether-Technology, Cadake Industries, 1977; Eric J. Lerner, The Big Bang Never Happened, Vintage Books, 1992, pp. 369-72; C.F. Krafft, The Ether and its Vortices (1955), BSRF reprint, 1987.
  5. See P.C.W. Davies & J.R. Brown (eds.), The Ghost in the Atom, Cambridge University Press, 1993 (1986), pp. 49-50 (J. Bell), 142 (B. Hiley); B.J. Hiley & F. David Peat (eds.), Quantum Implications: Essays in honour of David Bohm, Routledge, 1991 (1987), pp. 169-204 (J.-P. Vigier et al.) & pp. 295-311 (P.R. Holland & C. Philippidis).
  6. F. David Peat, Einstein's Moon, Contemporary Books, 1990, pp. 63, 65.
  7. David Bohm & F. David Peat, Science, Order & Creativity, Routledge, 1989 (1987), pp. 95-6.
  8. D. Bohm & B.J. Hiley, The Undivided Universe: An ontological interpretation of quantum theory, Routledge, 1993.
  9. Quantum Implications, pp. 227-8.
  10. David Bohm, Wholeness and the Implicate Order, Ark, 1990 (1980), p. 184.
  11. Science, Order & Creativity, pp. 184, 190.
  12. Renée Weber, Dialogues with Scientists and Sages: The search for unity, Arkana, 1990, p. 101.
  13. David Bohm, Causality and Chance in Modern Physics, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984 (1957), pp. 95, 103.
  14. A. Goswami, Science Within Consciousness, Institute of Noetic Sciences, 1994, p. 44.
  15. Ibid., p. 10.
  16. Michael Gomes, The Dawning of the Theosophical Movement, Quest, 1987, pp. 24-5.

January 1994. Revised May 1998.